Giving at the Margin

I attended a financial meeting at our church a while back where the church’s budget deficit was discussed at length.  It seems the church, like so many of us, had seen its costs increase and its revenues decline.  For a church, “revenues” means mostly tithing and donations.  So, much of the discussion was about whether the church should cut its costs (by, for example, reducing the services it provides for the community) or try to increase income by stressing to the congregation the need to give more.

The comments initially focused on limiting access of non-church members to facilities like the gym, reducing spending on projects that help the needy, or on raising fees for things like Wednesday night supper.  Few of these comments attracted much support because their effect on the budget would be small and because the church’s mission, after all, is to serve the community. 

One lady’s question caught my attention.  She said “I’ve noticed a lot more cars in the parking lot on Sunday, and we have started a new service that draws around 100 people.  If our numbers are up so, why hasn’t giving increased, as well?”  I knew the answer, of course, but decided this wasn’t the right moment for a drawn-out economics lesson.  Judging from the silence in the room, everyone else had the same thought.

The reason giving hadn’t increased in proportion to attendance—as any decent economist knows—is that all churchgoers are not created equal.  Or, at least, they don’t give equally.  The ‘givers’ were likely already attending services regularly, while the new ‘marginal Methodists’ began to attend only recently and may not have yet decided to give to the Church.  This may be because they are new to the community, because they have discovered that the new services fit their schedules better, or because circumstances in their lives triggered a need to start going to church and be closer to God. 

For whatever reason, these people have found a reason to seek what the church is offering.  This, I think, is exactly why the givers give and the church exists.